Ranked-choice voting debuts in Alaska special election, where Sarah Palin is fighting for a seat in Congress

Former President Trump Campaigns With House Candidate Sarah Palin And Senate Candidate Kelly Tshibaka In Anchorage, Alaska
U.S. House candidate and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin speaks during a “Save America” rally at Alaska Airlines Center on July 09, 2022 in Anchorage.

Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin is the most notable name on Alaska’s ballot to finish the rest of the late Rep. Don Young’s term, though her path to Congress is not guaranteed. 

And the outcome of the race may not be known for a couple weeks.

Alaska is using ranked-choice voting for the first time. It enables voters to choose multiple candidates on the ballot and rank them in order of preference. Unless a candidate receives over 50% of the first-choice vote, the candidate with the fewest first-choice votes will be eliminated and voters’ second choices will be reallocated to the remaining candidates. 

This process of elimination and redistribution continues until a candidate wins a majority – and may be delayed until absentee ballots are counted. Those ballots can be received until Aug. 26 — 10 days after Election Day. 

Palin, Republican businessman Nick Begich and Democrat Mary Peltola are on the special-election ballot for Young’s seat. While Palin, in her first campaign since she was the 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee, was the top vote getter in the June primary for the seat, a Alaska Survey Research poll in July simulated the rounds of ranked-choice voting and found that Palin would be eliminated in the first round of reallocation.

Ivan Moore, a longtime Alaska pollster who conducted the Alaska Survey Research poll, said Peltola is likely to get the most first-choice votes because Begich and Palin are likely splitting the Republican vote. 

He said Begich would likely win against Peltola after the reallocation of picks from voters who put Palin as their first choice, but that if Begich is eliminated first and his voters’ choices are split up, those votes would not exclusively go to Palin.

“Even faced with this evidence, Sarah Palin is still [treated] like the favorite to win. She’s not the favorite. She may well win, but she’s not the favorite to win,” Moore said. 

Palin has been backed by former President Donald Trump, who held a rally in the state in July and has decried the ranked-choice voting system for helping Senator Lisa Murkowski, who has her own primary on Tuesday. 

“She knew she couldn’t win a straight-up election, so she went to this ranked-choice crap,” Trump said of Murkowski.

In a statement as polls were closing in Alaska Tuesday, Palin bashed ranked choice voting, saying, “Today is the first test case of the crazy, convoluted, undesirable ranked-choice voting system, and to everyone who’s watching from Outside tonight, I say: Please, learn from Alaska’s mistake. Voters are confused and angry, and feel disenfranchised by this cockamamie system that makes it impossible to trust that your vote will even be counted the way you intended. We’ll keep fighting to equip Alaskans with the information they need to make sure their voices are heard amidst this Leftist-crafted system – no matter how hard the corrupt political establishment works to silence us.”

A pro-Palin ad from the Protect Freedom PAC highlights her endorsement from Trump and calls her an “America First Trump conservative.”

Begich and Palin have gone on the offensive against one another during the campaign. Begich has been running  an ad accusing Palin of  leaving Alaska “to be a celebrity” — it shows images from her appearance on the “Masked Singer” show.

In a tele-rally with Trump in August, on the day of the Mar-A-Lago raid, Palin called out “swamp creatures” in D.C. and referred to Begich as a “RINO” — a ‘Republican in name only.’ 

“I’ve never lived anywhere else. It cracks me up that one opponent especially tries to plant that seed that I’m not even a real Alaskan,” she added. 

Meanwhile, Peltola, a five-term state legislator, has played up her bipartisan credentials in ads leading up to Tuesday. “I’m the Democratic woman that can win,” she says in one ad that’s been airing since May, according to AdImpact. In another version of the ad, she says she’s the “only candidate fighting for abortion rights.”

The Alaska Survey Research poll had Peltola winning the special election in a final round matchup against Palin.

All three candidates in the special congressional election are also on the ballot for the primary to represent Alaska in the next session of Congress. The top four vote getters will move on to the general election in November, where ranked-choice voting will be used again.    

Meanwhile in Alaska’s Senate race, while four candidates will advance to the general election, Alaska’s Senate primary election is really a contest between two GOP frontrunners: far-right Trump pick Kelly Tshibaka and moderate incumbent Murkowski. 

Murkowski is a rare Senate swing vote and one of seven Republicans who voted to convict Trump over the Jan. 6 rioting at the U.S. Capitol, while Tshibaka, a former Alaska Department of Administration commissioner, is running on the idea that Murkowski has enabled President Biden and the Democrats politically.

Tshibaka, while not as full-throated as other Trump endorsees in her election denialism, has expressed skepticism about the 2020 election on the campaign trail. “While I recognize that Joe Biden is president, I nonetheless believe that legitimate questions still exist with respect to the 2020 election. Those legitimate questions demand legitimate answers in order to restore a collective trust in the integrity of our electoral process,” she told the Anchorage Daily News on Aug. 5. 

While 15 other candidates are vying for the remaining two slots on November’s ticket to compete against Murkowski and Tshibaka, including three Democrats, Alaskan Survey Research polling found overwhelming support for the top two GOP candidates. 

Between Murkowski and Tshibaka alone, once second- and third-vote preferences have been allocated via ranked-choice voting, Murkowski polls ahead 52.8% to 47.8% — only a 4.4% difference. In other words, Alaska’s election rules help Murkowski by letting some Democrats choose her as their second choice, boosting the incumbent above the far-right challenger.

Murkowski, as the incumbent, also possesses a large fundraising advantage: over $9.4 million raised in the 2022 cycle, compared to Tshibaka’s $3.3 million. By the same token, Murkowski has outspent her challenger nearly two-to-one. 

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